The Abusive New Federalism
Published: March 2, 2006
After a murky legislative process distinguished by a lack of any public hearing, the House is ready to rush to approve a special-interest measure for the food industry today. The bill would pre-empt all state food safety regulations that are more protective than federal standards. A bipartisan majority behind this clearly dangerous bill is echoing the industry's line that the goal is simply to end consumers' confusion about varying state regulations that govern warning labels and protective inspections.
If consumers believe that, then we have some bottled water to sell them that no longer warns of arsenic levels, and a salmon fillet that drops the distinction between fish originating in the wild and fish from a farm. Such information and a much larger array of warnings could be expunged under the bill.
Professional associations of state health, farm and consumer officials — denied a hearing before Congress and taxpayers — warn consumers that countless protections on the state and local levels would be gutted in favor of a lowest-common-denominator dictated by food and retail interests. The broad proposal threatens existing food safety programs affecting things like restaurant sanitation and sales of milk and numerous other vital products. The bill would invent a burdensome process by which states would have to petition federal officials to restore the safety regulations they now have.
The driving force behind the bill seems to be the challenge to industry forces posed by California, which is leading the way in demanding consumer warnings about mercury levels in fish, lead in calcium supplements and other hazards. Other states have followed suit. Proponents of the bill in the food industry and Congress claim that their goal is being misunderstood. If so, they should pull the bill back and prove their case at open hearings that treat the public interest as something more than a nonentity.